An Interview with Michael Govan


Dan Flavin: A Retrospective, showing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (through August 12), is one of those wonderful “must see” exhibitions that is both crowd pleasing and significant. Even before entering the exhibition, you are drawn to its glow. Glimpses of installations radiate out into the museum’s courtyard where they reflect off various surfaces. Once inside, the Flavin you thought you knew - the “fluorescent light bulb guy” - gives way to the visual poetry of a profoundly powerful artist.

The compelling beauty of this exhibition is not to be found solely in any one piece or in the exhaustive cataloging of a lifetime’s production, but in the unexpected symphony that the collection creates. It is in the overlapping interplays of light, as one moves through the galleries and installations, that the true character and impact of the artist’s work is revealed. Standing in any one gallery, you tend to look at the various installations of colored fluorescent bulbs as the “art object”. Yet what you discover as you progress is that it is less about the object – the source of the light- and more about how the work has catalyzed the space around it. This revelation is emphasized as one navigates the exhibition. Works announce themselves around corners and from distant rooms. Echoes of one installation linger and play with the next you enter. One gallery promises light that is an intense lime green, yet you find the color shifting to almost white as eyes adjust and your perspective changes. Leave the room and look back and you see the color intensified in a new way, juxtaposed against the rose cast of a neighboring piece.

It is in this experiential way that you begin to grasp the depth of Flavin’s pursuit and the impact it would have on how we think about art and our perception of it.

LACMA’s new director, Michael Govan, worked with Tiffaney Bell to co-curate the Dan Flavin exhibition, which opened its multi-venue tour at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. in 2004. Govan comes to the LA County Museum with a heavyweight resume: Williams College graduate, Thomas Krens protégé while Deputy Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and most recently, Director of the Dia Art Foundation. It was Govan who also conceived Dia Beacon, the museum’s current 240,000 square foot space on the banks of the Hudson.

I sat down with Michael Govan in his office, to speak with him about the Flavin show and his new position with the museum. Magritte’s masterpiece “Ceci N’est Pas Une Pipe” hung enviably on the wall above his head. Cloud and sky carpeting covered the floor, a remnant of the recent and sensational Magritte show, and the museum’s innovative collaboration with John Baldessari, who designed its installation.

Sights and sounds of LACMA’s new construction heralded the big changes underway. And at their center, I found a person of tremendous passion and intelligence, filled with the energy of one who has seen his moment and is seizing it, not just professionally, but for a museum and a city that are perhaps, finally, ready for their cultural coming of age.


Venice: First of all, welcome to Los Angeles. I can’t believe it’s already been a year. Has it gone quickly for you as well?

Michael Govan: I don’t know. I’ve worked so hard. I’m sort of in a time warp all the time. Place and time get distorted in that space. I had a lot of travel to do for the museum because the museum was without a director for a year. So I was traveling all over the world, negotiating shows, trying to make up for lost time.

Since January, I really made a commitment to be in Los Angeles, to spend more time here, feeling the place, getting to know people, spending more time with my staff. So since then it’s really felt like I live here.

When you conceived of the Dan Flavin show, did you have any idea that you would end up being in Los Angeles, running the museum?

No. I mean, the show is as old as my daughter. I remember my wife couldn’t come to the National Gallery opening [in 2004] because she was super pregnant. And in fact, we had tried to bring the show to the West Coast, and we had no takers.

Really?

Los Angeles, San Francisco – nobody really wanted the show.

Why was that, do you think?

I don’t know. I think Flavin has gone through ups and downs in reputation. It seemed like such a natural. I knew the work so well and I thought it made a spectacular public exhibition, as well as being a worthy historical documentation project for a retrospective.

I would think especially so for Los Angeles, where his work seems like such a clear antecedent to the “Light and Space” movement.

He did a show here in ’66 at Nicholas Wilder Gallery, all in white. I’m sure a lot of people saw it. I don’t know which exact artists saw it, but I’m sure it had a big impact, even though the esthetics are very different between a New York artist working with light and LA artists working with light.

That’s interesting. How would you describe those differences?

Well, the most obvious difference is that Flavin leaves the mechanism of the light absolutely bare and obvious – the fixture, the back of the fixture, the screw holes. Whereas, I think a lot of the West Coast artists still put the phenomena of light in a more amorphous sense, where the source of light is hidden. Think of Robert Irwin or James Turrell. I mean, an Irwin will maybe work with natural light entirely, or the phenomena of seeing in a raw way –where it’s hard to see where things plug in. Or the modified light of Turrell or Maria Nordman, showing the shape of light and how it hits the ground, becoming sculptural.

But you rarely have the sort of raw light fixture. That’s a very New York thing, that matter-of-factness. Donald Judd’s esthetic is very much that as well. You see the screws. Its assembly is part of it.

But that said, there are many aspects to the work. One of the aspects to Flavin’s work is that sort of physical / special / color quality that you can absolutely compare to what other artists have done.

Flavin is sort of earlier in absolute terms, starting in the early ‘60s, but of course he’s working with light bulbs, and it isn’t till later that he really gets into the phenomena of light in that sense of the late ‘60s or the ‘70s.

Looking at what Flavin was doing in the early ‘60s, the work seems like such an odd duck, particularly in the context of the emerging Pop Art being done at the same time.

How is that?

In the sense that he was really doing installation and minimal work at a time when another group of artists – Warhol, Lichtenstein, Johns, etc. were starting to use Pop images. For example, Flavin’s use of fluorescent bulbs seems vastly different than Jasper Johns’ sculptural use of a light bulb as Pop image.

Right. Although the light bulb sculpture is a good reference, I think, for Flavin getting into it. Robert Rosenblum wrote an early article comparing Flavin’s light to the Pop colors that were in commercial storefronts.

So I agree with you that the raw fixtures, all the light, it still seems he was really on an edge. Still today. I think it’s often misunderstood, this idea that “serial minimal” is one camp and “Pop” is another camp. And then you say okay, Pop is taken, is appropriated, from commercial imagery, and it’s colorful, and minimal is industrial production and it’s generally monochrome and in series.

Yet think of Warhol’s Brillo boxes when they were shown as a series of boxes in a line - an absolutely minimal sculpture. And then look at Flavin’s color and you realize it’s a fiction that the two were opposite poles.

I’m also amazed at how fresh and timeless Flavin’s work looks over this 40-year period.

You actually see that in the first room. If you’re seeing from the perspective of the artist and you see the icons and the tungsten bulbs and a bit of fluorescent hand-painted boxes, and then you look at the fluorescent, you just look at it. Right away it seems so abstract as to be universal. It’s a strip of light that mimics architecture. In fact, it was designed to just disappear. So its total abstractness does already suggest timelessness a little bit.

It is interesting to me that you conceived of this show, but it wasn’t a show for the museum you were running at the time.

Dia didn’t do retrospectives.

How much input did you have in the installation and choice of work for the planned institutions it would be going to?

Well, just to speak about how the curatorial work was done, Flavin was an artist who installed everything himself and had a great sense of space and installation. So we approached this problem with a great deal of respect and a bit of trepidation. And one thing we knew was that the notion of authorship was a question. There were a lot of little decisions to make.

I made no dictatorial decisions – this goes here, that goes here. The way we did it is - Tiffany Bell, who’s the director of the catalogue raisonne; myself; Steve Morse, who was Flavin’s studio assistant; Steven Flavin, who is the artist’s son and who worked on a lot of projects; and John Voucher who worked at MOCA and worked on shows and worked at Dia - we would discuss everything.

We took our collective experience. Tiffany’s working with Dan in the ‘80s, me in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and then we’d double-check everything so that there were no crazy ideas. Then we imposed that on other museums because it was a collective experience no one could match.

So we were really worried. We wanted to set a precedent and so we took a lot of control over it, I think to the chagrin of some of the curators at the other institutions.

Was it a challenge to fit this into LACMA’s schedule? Was that part of your thought in taking the job?

No. Paul Schimmel [chief curator at MOCA] joked to me today and said, “You took this job just so you could bring that Flavin show to LA because no one would take it.” And – no. It was actually an accident. The show was ending in Munich, and several of my staff here asked me why the show didn’t come to Los Angeles, because it had been a big success. It turned out our space is in flux because of construction, and I was able to squeeze it into the schedule. So everyone’s happy.

And we wanted to make it special for Los Angeles. One of the biggest components of the show is the recreation of the Hauserman showroom, which gives the show a completely different feel than in any other city. That was important to me, especially after you’ve had a show with a few venues.

Did you get to know Dan Flavin as a person?

Yes, I did know him. I knew him quite well for the last years of his life, and we worked on many projects together, most notably the Guggenheim reopening of the Frank Lloyd Wright building.

What was he like?

He had a reputation. One of the reasons there isn’t a lot of art criticism is that when people wrote about him, they would usually get fired back a pretty aggressive letter. He seemed to enjoy finding fault with most things that the art critics would write. I get this feeling that at some point people figured it wasn’t worth the letter back. So he had a reputation as being quite aggressive in that sense. In all the years I worked with him, he was great to work with. He was really nice. He was physically compromised sometimes because he had an advanced state of diabetes with complications. But he produced an incredible amount of work.

In so many of the titles to the pieces, there’s a personal dedication. [“monument 4 those who have been killed in ambush (to PK who reminded me about death)”, “untitled (to you, Heiner, with admiration and affection)”, “untitled (to Henri Matisse)”] The titles often connote this poetic sense of admiration and friendship.

He was looking for an art that would be absolutely accessible and abstract, right? And behind it are all sorts of things – the occasion of its making, the person he was working with, the art history that he was referring to. And I think he just came up with this fantastic way of connoting something abstract and cool and distant - knowing that it’s produced by a human being and it has all of these other associations. The work works both ways. You can feel it in the title

That’s what struck me. The titles imbue the work with an emotional content that is often very intimate and vulnerable.

Which it absolutely is. The pathos in the work is what’s striking. How does an abstract work made out of fluorescent light have pathos in the sense of that tragic sensibility and his dedications to painters, or to Blind Lemon Jefferson or to Louis Sullivan – how does that happen? This is the magic of his work.

Who were his close friends artistically?

Well, Donald Judd, Sol Lewitt. But this is a misunderstanding. Everybody thinks the minimal guys. But he and Judd, their main interest and friendship started over the ideas around color and use of color - this beautiful industrial color that didn’t exist in any other medium. Sol Lewitt, obviously, there’s an early work dedicated to Sol Lewitt. They were friends. There were a lot of artists. He loved art and he loved artists.

Well, I think, really, as your first curatorial exhibition, it couldn’t be a more exciting one to start with.

Thanks. Well, luckily, it was done before I was director here, because being a director doesn’t really give you a lot of time to take care all those details. It was already ready to go. Whether there’ll be another one and when it will be, will be dependent on a lot of things.

This may be a good transition to talking about your new position. You have a dual role as CEO and director of the LA County Museum. This must be exciting for you, to come to Los Angeles at this time

Yeah. I think that’s true, and what interests me is how culture is made. I wasn’t interested just to come and run an exhibition program or collect a few objects. There are many qualified people to do that. That’s the heart of a museum ongoing.

But what was clear about Los Angeles is that it was in a situation where the museum just absolutely needed to be reconsidered. It was in the middle of being reconsidered with the Broad Contemporary Art Museum and Renzo Piano plan. I think about art history, having studied and spent time in Rome, and growing up partly in Washington, DC, another city that was designed to be a cultural environment -the way the architecture was used, the way the space was used. It’s very curious how people, cities, reflect themselves in their spaces, monuments, cathedrals, public buildings, what they collect for the inside of the palace, if you will.

So the role of the museum-

Right now art museums as a total have this huge responsibility to reflect what the culture is. That’s kind of the opportunity here. And in order to do that, you can’t just be a curator. You have to have access to the resources. You have to be able to convince the board and the powers that be, the people who really are responsible to raise the money and organize the place, of a particular vision. There’s only one way to do that and it’s kind of up to the CEO and director.

You’ve come at a very interesting time. The museum is undergoing a multi-phased expansion and renovation.

I mean, I’m really curious about the appetite of Los Angeles as a place – the people, the patrons –how big the appetite is to create something cultural that will be lasting for many generations - as a building and installations and new acquisitions. The museum is already one of the top museums in the nation. It’s just a question of isn’t Los Angeles maybe almost at the very top of the world as a city? So don’t you want your museum to reflect that? That’s the line I’m questioning.

And then, I’m really curious. I’m partly here to see if I can ask that question, channel some of that energy. I want feedback from the community. You’ll have people who say – which I believe in – that it doesn’t matter what the buildings look like or the gallery. Just do good shows, present it. That’s fine. That’s fine locally. That’s actually fine for a very high-level taste. That’s the highest level of taste where you look beyond the basics and whether the walls are nicked and crumbling and all of that, and you just say, “Well, the art’s great.”

I think that for a more basic understanding of the general public and public from afar – tourist visitors – we have almost none. We’re not on the map in the international scene of museums. Then you need to sort of think bigger.

In my involvement with the galleries in Los Angeles, we’ve found that it’s very easy to reach the art community and the audience who are already there. But to extend beyond that is very difficult.

That’s the role of the general art museum. Skipping the art history of it and the fact that you’re encyclopedic and you cover many cultures and all that, the role of the general art museum, is that it’s the big place. It’s the thing that you measure. It’s your immediate measure for the ambition of the city in terms of visual art.

Right.

LA is just one fantastic city, and I think that that’s kind of the responsibility of the general museum. It has to be the umbrella, be the big symbol, reach the wide audience, and then through that portal and that process of educating people about art in general, then you feed into all the specializations. Then you feed into contemporary art, you feed into Indian art, you feed into a Norton Simon, you feed into all these places. And so that’s kind of how I see the museum - to be kind of a general meeting place, and that’s, I think, where the ambition needs to be.

It looks like the design that’s developing for the museum will very much reflect that sense of being a cultural meeting place.

Right. And then the quality of the art has got to be the highest possible. I don’t want to privilege that over the quality of the art. That’s the dialogue. It’s to put art first, architecture second.

So my dream would be to reshape the presentation of the collection over time so that it is not just more celebrated but more accessible and that it will show a very different attitude or perspective than other encyclopedic museums. I think there’s a chance to do something very unique here. The dream is to pursue that and to have an open, accessible public space. It will require a lot of building, not for the sake of building but for the sake of the public and for the sake of the art.

I love your idea that it’s not just about the museum as an entity unto itself but that it’s really a cultural citizen and force in the city as a whole. I just got an email from the Rand Corporation, summing up the conference they did, “A Vision for the Arts,” in Los Angeles last October. There was a sense that we are in our post-adolescence as a city, culturally, and that there are some choices to be made about that. That if we are conscious of where we are, then we can better have an influence on where we go and how we grow and develop as a culture.

That’s right. At some point it just gets down to the resources that get thrown at it.

Look. LA is one of the wealthiest, most powerful cities in the world. The question will be: will it get behind this, and that means in terms of the artworks that are donated, the acquisitions funds that are assembled, the funds for building, renovation, and construction. And I think what I’ve tried to make clear is that the raw material is fantastic – the collections, the artist community that we can engage, the quality of the curatorial staff.

You can tell it’s an undercapitalized place. Everybody said, “Well, LA’s always been just about to happen,” and maybe there’s some truth to that. At some point, though, it will. There’s a huge critical mass of energy. There are more images being made in LA than probably any city in the world if you include movies, television, Disney, museums, artists. It’s an amazing place.

Is there a sense of collaboration with directors of the other museums in town to build on that momentum?

Yeah. I think there’s a lot of collaboration. In fact, we have lunches where some of the museum directors – the Getty, the Hammer, MOCA – meet together now regularly, and I think there’s an interesting dynamic.

That’s great to hear.

So there’s this great possibility to collaborate and work together. We actually don’t need to be in competition at all because the real issue is can we raise the bar overall for the city. It’ll be a good problem to have when everybody’s interested and we’ve grown to be huge institutions and then we’re competing. Right now we’re actually kind of in it together, and it’s a great feeling